Atara’s eyes opened wide, forced out of her nocturnal delusions by an incessant pinging in her ears. Her first sight was of a lumigraph between her face and the room lit by the warm morning light, and it read, “Incoming transmission: Armada Admiral Harianan Aesho.” The captain left her comfortable position lying on her side beneath the blankets and rolled over, sitting up with the covers held over her body by her left arm. The lumigraph followed her as she moved, and Atara pressed a finger to it.
“Admiral?” Atara asked when the communication began. Her groggy speech betrayed her recent awakening.
“Good morning, captain,” Aesho said through the lumigraph in her usual shrewd tone. “Let’s skip the formalities. I need you to report to the nearest secure Q-comms facility immediately.”
“Xannissa and I are on vacation,” Atara told her. “Can this wait?”
“If this could wait, I wouldn’t be calling you first thing in the morning,” Aesho barked. “Your leave does not exempt you from the duties of your service. Now, I’m giving you the location of the nearest Q-comms center. Looks like it’s the FedSec headquarters about seven kilometers away. I expect a call within the hour. Aesho out.”
The video feed on the lumigraph disappeared. A few seconds later, she received a notification which, upon opening, gave the Q-comms address Atara was to contact.
Atara sighed. “Damn it!” she shouted as she hurled the covers away from her, revealing her naked body. Fuming, and as much as it would have calmed her down, she decided to avoid taking a shower for the sake of time. Instead, she stepped into the shield-scrubber and in less than a minute was pristine from scalp to sole. After cleaning her teeth and fixing her hair, Atara left the bathroom and returned to the bedroom, only to realize that Xannissa never came to bed. After putting on her boots and clothing herself in standard, she entered the living room and found Xannissa laid out upon the couch still in her bodysuit—the sunlight piercing the morning haze and shining on her white polyalloy.
“Xann,” Atara said, leaning over and rocking Xannissa’s hip. “Xann, wake up.” The Elestan’s eyes cracked open.
“What time is it?” Xannissa asked with a groggy voice. She put her hands on her face and stretched her back and arms.
“Seven after six,” Atara told her. Xannissa rose from the couch, yawning. “Aesho called me a few minutes ago. She wants us to contact her on Q-comms.”
“Is it important?” The Elestan was still coming to her senses.
“Damn. Let me clean up first.”
The exterior of the Federation Security Agency headquarters was a far cry from the posh crowd that lingered at the hotel. Federal police stood guard within and without, wearing dark, navy blue Accellus 3 marked with checker patterns. Their identities were masked by the black OPEL panels on their helmets. When Atara and Xannissa passed through FedSec’s entrance from the tower’s garage and transport hub, the guards stopped them at a security checkpoint. Despite their clear Military attire, the police granted them no exception. The two friends underwent a quick yet thorough scan before they were allowed to pass into the wide main corridor which featured a tall ceiling overlooked by offices with windows for walls. Professionally-dressed agents and officials who occupied offices within the government building hurried down the long stretch and the intersecting hallways. At the other end of the corridor sat a busy, curved reception desk with the meters-wide FedSec emblem behind.
“I don’t understand,” Xannissa thought to Atara as they approached the desk. “We’re walking weapons,” referring to the security check.
“I don’t think they understand either,” Atara told her.
Three others stood ahead of the two. When it became their turn for assistance, the receptionist took a call. Displeased, Atara leaned against the tall, dark stone table, supporting herself with her elbows and meshing her fingers together. Xannissa placed one hand on her hip and rested the other arm on the desk as her restless eyes darted from people, to lumionics, to a live news stream—one of four playing within the lobby encapsulating the reception area.
“We’re finally hearing about an attack that took place aboard a science station in neighboring Tribesson,” the anchorman reported, flanked by a picture subtitled with the story’s headline, “SCIENCE STATION RAID.” The anchorman was then replaced by a map of the Federation-Tribesson border.
“The raid occurred a week from yesterday in an unpopulated system about two-hundred lightyears fringeward of Federation Space. The small Akkain Technologies facility housed over five-hundred Federation citizens, mostly scientists, leading up to the assault by marauders whose identities are still unknown. Passing Navy vessels were quick to respond to the attack, instrumental in preventing further tragedy. The motivation behind the raid is not yet known.” The anchorman appeared again, and the headline next to him changed. “The meeting of the Transthalassic Accord between the Federation and Republic and their respective protectorates begins tomorrow, marking the bicentennial of the….”
“I apologize for the wait,” the female receptionist said. “How may I help you?” She looked at Atara with intent, and Xannissa’s gaze returned to the employee.
“Can you direct us to the Q-comms center?” Atara asked her.
“If you’ll just allow me to verify your ID,” she told them, engaging her workstation’s near-field EM-comms system to interact with their Accellus 4 suits, specifically their bracers which carried the transceivers. “Okay, Captain Atara Korrell and Commander Xannissa Cetalo?”
“Correct,” Atara said. She was still leaning on her elbows.
“I’ll give you the directions.” The receptionist generated a lumigraph and, holding it like a slip of paper, passed it and its contained information to Atara who copied the graphic in her hands and gave it to Xannissa. The two of them saved the information, and the lumigraphs vanished.
“Thank you very much,” Atara told the receptionist as she eased off of the table.
“No problem,” the receptionist said, and immediately gave her attention to the next person in line.
Lumigraphs projected upon their corneas acted as augmented reality displays. These lumionics, like most others, shined in one direction. Only the reflections of the lumionics were visible—subtle shimmers in the moisture of their eyes. They followed the guide to a set of lifts, down to a floor below the geological surface. There, they met more federal police who, after being supplied with the Q-comms address, escorted them to one of several doors. When it opened, Atara and Xannissa gazed upon the sunlit interior.
The pair stepped into a lavish office. The solid wood floor made little sound as they walked toward a white desk occupied by the armada admiral. Continuous OPEL panels exposed the room’s interior to an endless clear sky. Skylights flooded the center of the room with sunlight from the Akos star. Towering, snow-capped mountains climbed above the clouds. They were back on Lanan, but only in virtuality. Everything before them was a lumionic construct created from data transmitted through an instantaneous, two-way, quantum communications system that was impossible to intercept—technology identical to their neural interface link, albeit scaled up to handle more information. The technology is limited by connections. Links can only be formed in pairs, and arrays of Q-comms transmitters are required to communicate with multiple receivers.
“There you are,” Aesho’s image told them. The lumigraphic clock above and behind her signaled that it had been an hour exactly since the admiral called them. “This is urgent.” Aesho stood from her seat behind her desk and walked around it, seating herself against its front edge. She couldn’t be bothered to ask them about their vacation or apologize for impinging on their schedule. “Do you know of the Akkain station attack that happened in Tribesson?”
“No, I don’t,” Atara said flatly.
“I saw it on the news just minutes ago,” Xannissa told her.
“Of course,” the admiral said, “but it’s gone a full week unnoticed. All the Admiralty can hope is that it ends up under the rug.”
“Enlighten me,” Atara told her, folding her arms.
“Eight days ago, the same day as the start of our wargame, two black ships attacked a science station in orbit around a barren planet. These ships had been docked within hang—“
“What was the station researching?” Atara interrupted.
“What were they researching?”
“Omnium?” Xannissa asked. “Why would an omnium lab be built in the middle of the boondocks?”
Aesho sighed and said, “See, the thing is, Akkain Tech is a company that is jointly funded by MARAD. As you know, corporations are stingy. Originally, the lab was built to study geology of all things. In order to rake in more money, they dropped the planet study and repurposed the station for omnium.”
“I see,” Xannissa nodded.
“If they were receiving MARAD money…,” Atara added.
“…they were working on something important,” Xannissa finished for her.
“Nothing gets past you two,” Aesho said. “You’ve seen too many things, as have I. Fiori.” Fiori’s orange figure appeared behind Atara and Xannissa, her hands on her lumionic hips. “I’d like you to be here while I explain this.” Aesho took a brief pause before continuing, collecting her thoughts. “The so-called marauders that attacked the station were soldiers on a carefully-planned mission. Not only did Akkain repurpose the lab, but they opened mining rights to the planet to rake in even more money. The attackers spent years building infrastructure right under their noses, and no one ever bothered to check.”
“Who are they?” Atara asked.
“The Elsheem State.”
“No way,” Xannissa exclaimed. “The only way they could have would’ve been….”
“That’s exactly right,” Aesho said. “Alliance backing.” Xannissa shook her head in disgust while Atara tilted one of her crossed arms to her face, placing her hand across her forehead such to conceal her eyes from Aesho.
“They’re looking to start a war,” Xannissa muttered.
“Not quite yet,” Aesho explained. “When they attacked, they made off with something of great value.”
“Oh yes, that important thing,” Atara said, sounding unamused.
“What is it?” Xannissa asked.
“The scientists are calling it ecksivar,” Aesho said, pronouncing the odd word ‘xvar,’ “but we’re calling it black omnium.”
“Never heard of it,” Xannissa remarked.
“Ecksivar,” Fiori cut in as she walked in front of them to stand next to Aesho, “is a novel variety of omnium with special attributes that cannot be disclosed at this time.”
“I see,” Xannissa nodded.
“How does this concern us?” Atara asked.
“You already know,” Aesho told the captain. “I’m giving you a ship.”
“I’m an instructor,” Atara explained.
“I forfeited promotion.”
Atara dropped her arms to her sides. Deep down, she craved the feeling of calling a ship her own again. Xannissa knew this despite her never openly expressing it. The Terran captain was born for the stars. Just the possibility of being assigned a new command excited her, even being ignorant to the mission details.
“Before I accept,” Atara said softly, “I want a full rundown.”
“You say that like you have a choice,” Aesho laughed, moving away from her desk to stand near the room’s center. The windows and skylight darkened until they blocked out the sunlight, and the room fell dark without compensation from the lumionics. A string of tiny lumigraphs encircled Aesho’s front. She manipulated them with her fingers and flicked one toward the center of the room where it expanded to fill most of the space from ceiling to floor.
The three-dimensional representation that it became was a false-color graphic of subspace scanner data. It looked like a long, amorphous blob that could have possibly been in the shape of something manmade. “We registered this big bastard on subdar only a few hours after the attack from monitoring stations all the hell the way in Federation Space. That’s why the resolution is so poor. We have no idea how something so big slipped right into Tribesson. Honestly, that’s the least of my worries. I’m more concerned about the loot they made out with.” Aesho flicked another image in place of the first before continuing. “This shows the same craft several hours later. You’ll notice a change in aspect ratio. It’s a bit larger. And no, it’s not due to resolution. It’s in the same place as before. Those frigates that hit the station most likely attached to it, like a mothership. Whatever it is, Tribesson tracking stations are having a very hard time seeing it, but it hasn’t made it out of their territory yet. We have some ships following it, but I doubt they’ll ever catch up.”
“Then what hope do we have?” Atara asked her. “If I left from Lanan all the way on the other side of the Federation, I still wouldn’t catch them.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.” Aesho brought forth another image, this time a high resolution, true-color representation of a Federation starship. The ship’s curved exterior harbored anti-ship, dual cannon artillery, anti-strikecraft autocannon turrets, lines of hexagonal missile hatches, and circular doors for torpedo tubes. Two large bays, one on the port and the other on the starboard side opposite to each other, opened to the outside space. Between them was a hangar. The bridge was placed in the dorsal aft section of the ship as always, right before the seven fusion thrusters. The stern flared out some from the rest of the ship, forming shapes that looked like stubby wings. Altogether, the ship looked sleek and fearsome.
“This is the Kelsor-class,” Aesho explained. “It’s a battlecruiser designed for performing both fleet and solo ops; however, the latter is where it truly shines. Would you believe me if I told you they’ve finally cracked the synergistic drive?”
“So someone’s come up with a mediator able to regulate the drives?” Xannissa asked, not sounding terribly surprised.
“Able to make the ultra-precise adjustments to both so they don’t interfere?”
“Then I believe you. It wasn’t impossible, just impractical.”
“GreDrive and Archetype made it practical,” Aesho continued. “The energy and space savings are a designer’s dream. They’ve had the room to pack a battleship’s payload into the smaller form of a battlecruiser, give it a spacious hangar, several large cargo bays, and they were also able to cram in a small omnium refinery. Whatever space they had left went into four simulators and general comfort. This ship was built for long solo missions. It puts the cruiser back into battlecruiser.”
“I get it,” Atara stopped her. “There’s only one thing I’m interested in: is it fast enough?”
“Is eighty-four-hundred c fast enough for you?”
“Eighty-four-hundred?!” Xannissa exclaimed.
“Is that good or bad, Xann?” Atara asked.
“The current standard is about seventy-three-hundred. They’ve broken eight-thousand!”
“Our elsheem friends are going a little above that at seventy-six,” Aesho told them. “That’s why we can’t catch them.”
“That ship they have is probably a flying hyperwarp core at that point,” Xannissa noted.
“You’ll have the privilege of commanding the first of its kind,” Aesho told Atara. “As such, yours will be named the Kelsor. The Navy plans to have five-hundred of these commissioned before the end of the year, and another two-thousand the next.”
“When do we leave?” Atara asked. She felt anxious now, realizing this was her reality.
“The first ship is being built as we speak. They started about five days ago, so if there are no problems, it should be finished three days from now. Of course, it’ll have to be looked over, taking a few more days before it’s mission-ready. How much longer is your vacation?”
“Until next week. Six more days.”
“If you’re content with jumping on a starship the moment you return to Lanan, then stay on Earth until your leave is over. I’m giving you the ship’s specifications, crew roster, and mission details. Of course, this is all classified.” Like the receptionist, Aesho generated a pair of lumigraphs and handed them to Atara and Xannissa. “The mission is simple: stop the enemy ship from reaching the Elsheem State and retrieve the black omnium. Fiori will fill you in on the details of said ship as we gather more intelligence.”
“Is that all?” Atara asked.
“There is one more thing,” Fiori said. “The marauder’s path is currently projecting toward the Saraian Range.”
“Oh dear,” Xannissa said.
“I expect they will traverse around the upspin edge of the Range,” Fiori continued. “The Kelsor has a greater chance of success if it skims the downspin side.”
“Ideally, we’d try to trap them in there,” Aesho said, “but as we can’t catch them, it’s really no use. We’ve already begun coordinating with the Republic and they are willing to help as much as they can, but this is a Federation matter. Do not forget that. That is all, ladies,” Aesho nodded to them. Fiori waved goodbye as the entire lumionic construction within which they were immersed vanished, leaving them inside a small, featureless room.
“Well,” Atara said, still holding the lumigraph the admiral gave them, “what do you think?”
“You know me,” Xannissa told her friend. “I’ll follow you to the edge of the galaxy.”
“What about Aedan?” At this, Xannissa’s heart sank. After thirteen years of living on base, no more missions, she was finally ready to settle down. Her engagement to Aedan just the night before complicated matters.
“Well,” Xannissa said, pondering her situation. She brought her fist under her nose supported by her other arm, thought for a moment, and then dropped it back to her side. “Aedan’s waited this long. He’ll just have to wait a little longer.”
“Will he understand?”
“He’s always been understanding. I just really hate to put him through this. But I’ll make sure this is my last mission. A few months in deep space with a synerdrive that actually works, and I think I’ll have had my fill.”
“Okay,” Atara said. “I think it’ll all work out for you.” Atara didn’t like to be reminded that Xannissa didn’t share her passion for deep space, or that this very well could be the last mission that they ever shared.
The pair’s brief exchange after the end of the transmission prompted one of the guards to check on them, and they were kindly escorted to the lifts. Once back at the surface, they noticed the overcast begin to roll in, and it rained that entire afternoon. Blue Road, situated above the stratus layer, was packed with visitors, but the two returned to see and do things they hadn’t gotten the chance to do because of Metro Aero. This is where they discovered that Cylenna had won the championship. She took pictures and signed autographs for the crowd. Xannissa attempted to avoid her, slipping through the sea of bodies, but Cylenna called out to her across the vast atrium, freezing her in her tracks.
“Wow! You’re Spectre’s sister?” shouted an enthusiast.
“Is that what they’re calling you now?” Xannissa asked. Cylenna’s arm was around her neck as they posed for pictures.
“That’s what they’ve always called me, remember?”
Xannissa decided it was best to withhold anything about her engagement. The two stayed at Blue Road until after dusk. Once finally back at the hotel, they stayed up a little longer only to stare at the mesmerizing cityscape before they crawled into the same bed, as service partners typically did. Xannissa was out like a light. Atara’s eyes stared at the blank ceiling for hours until, finally, her thoughts carried her away into that whirlwind of nocturnal delusion.